4 3

Book Review: How Democracies Die

Demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.

In their 2018 book, How Democracies Die, Harvard political science professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (L&Z) describe the various ways in which democracies die. For the last 15 years, L&Z have studied democracy deaths as the main focus of their research. What they find is that these days, democracies often do not die after a military coup. Instead, many modern authoritarians or populist demagogues gain power by striking deals with existing political parties who are often under stress and losing influence. Hitler and Mussolini took that route. In both cases, the existing order was confident that they could control the demagogues they helped to legitimize.

In this regard, L&Z see political parties and especially their leaders and insiders as gatekeepers who are in a position to prevent legitimizing and/or the rise to power of demagogues. L&Z comment on this legal route to power: “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally—to kill it. . . . . One of the great ironies of how democracies die is that the very defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion”

American democracy vs. Trump: L&Z write to express their deep concern that President Trump, a demagogue in their view, could rise to become a full-blown authoritarian. They find that two critical norms that have kept American demagogues in the past from gaining power have largely collapsed. One weakened norm is “mutual toleration” which exists when political parties accept each other as legitimate political opposition. The other norm is “forbearance” wherein politicians exercise restraint in using power and institutional prerogatives. L&Z calls these norms the “soft guardrails of American democracy.”

L&Z argue the erosion of these norms began in the 1980s and by the time Obama was elected in 2008, “many Republicans, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned the forbearance strategy for a strategy of winning by any means necessary.” They point out that Trump accelerated the trend, but didn't initially cause it. L&Z see extreme polarization as a root cause of the weakening of the norms that helped defend democracy from demagogues: “And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.”

Some may recall that the 2018 presidential greatness survey by experts ranked Trump as the most polarizing president in US history. [idw.community] 2018 was the first year that the question had been asked. It was asked in view of the obvious polarizing effect that Trump had on American politics and society.

The tyrant test: L&Z find that authoritarians tend to use the same rhetoric and tactics in making their run for power. Keying off of earlier research of democratic breakdowns by political scientist Juan Linz, L&Z articulate four behavioral warning signs that help identify an authoritarian. Evidence of any one of the four behaviors in words or actions point to an authoritarian politician.

The four signs are evident “when a politician (1) rejects the democratic rules of the game, (2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, (3) tolerates or encourages violence, or (4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” Trump has shown behaviors that fit all four of the warning signs. For example, he rejected the democratic rules of the game by claiming he would not accept election results if he lost the 2016 election and falsely claimed there was massive voter fraud. Similarly, he denied the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton by calling her a criminal and calling for her to be imprisoned. He also publicly tolerated and encouraged violence by his supporters, e.g., “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would 'ya? Seriously. Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you, I will pay the legal fees. I promise you.”

L&Z argue that the republican party has abdicated essentially all responsibility to try to keep the authoritarian demagogue Trump from gaining power or undermining democracy. We are undergoing the kind of stealth attack on democracy that people have a hard time seeing. L&Z point out that there have always been about 30-40% of Americans who were ready to support a populist demagogue. Trump’s populist demagogic rhetoric and behavior, coupled with the the republican party’s abdication of responsibility to defend democracy, make America’s current political situation look truly frightening.

Warning: L&Z point out that opposition to demagogues must be legal. The demagogue can use anything illegal by the opposition as an excuse to further undermine democratic freedoms and the rule of law. In other words, Antifa and any other pro-violence groups that want to help defend democracy need to cool their jets and get their act together. Stupidity such as violence plays into the tyrant’s hands.

By Daryl6
Actions Follow Post Like

Be part of the movement!

Welcome to the community for those who value evidence and civil discourse - the social network for the fans of the IDW.

Create your free account


Feel free to reply to any comment by clicking the "Reply" button.


Excellent review. Would it be ok to share it in my "Books" group?

Sure. I've done several reviews here on books about politics and the biology of politics that strike me as extremely important but mostly obscure:


@Daryl Great, thx. I'll take a look. Please feel free to join the group and add your reviews.




Just from the opening statement:
"the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument"--both things can be in the eye (or thoughts/minds) of the observer.

MarPep Level 7 Apr 16, 2019

Right you are. You just refuse to consider the legitimacy or the evidence that eyes, thoughts, or minds of other observers, including people who see Trump as a liar, crook and traitor. The easiest way to reject political opposition and inconvenient facts and logic is to deny and/or distort all of it into triviality and/or non-existence. That debate strategy wins 100% of all disputes, but only in the mind of the people who use that reality- and logic-denial strategy.


@Daryl What I see is Trump speaking at Rallies and for the News
Reporters, and it all being twisted in the next mornings papers. The hatred of Trump by the Left and the MSM is amazing--as is their complete disregard of the crimes and idiocies of the Democrats.


Trump is part of a much bigger problem, the conservative assault on democracy and the rule of law. If you think the MSM is always wrong, but pay any attention to it. As far as I am concerned, the MSM is much more reliable than the chronic liar Trump.

If you think democratic crimes weren't prosecuted, tell Trump and Barr to get off their lazy butts and do something about it -- they have the power to uphold the rule of law, not you or I. I want all crimes investigated and prosecuted if there is enough evidence. I could not care less if it is a democratic crime or a republican crime. Crooks are crooks and I want every one prosecuted.


This seems like a very good book; will try to find it. But really, could Trump become like Hitler? Hitler had an army that he had built which was out on the street bullying and killing people even before he gained power. If the Republicans did that (in the name of Trump) I believe there would be a lot more backlash/pushback than there was in Germany.

I have faith in the wisdom of the American people to see through him but the Republicans must find a strong and intelligent candidate to also run in the 2020 elections. I propose they try to entice Ben Shapiro or highjack Andrew Yang!

The book is excellent and easy to read. Reading the stories of how various democracies fall show some the parallels between the rise to power of Trump and both Hitler and Mussolini.

I wondered the same about Trump maybe being Hitler. So I did some research and have concluded that Trump will not become a Hitler. I got the superb 1951 book by political theorist Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. That book, which is highly influential and well-known, makes it clear that Trump lacks the intelligence, work ethic, vision and self-confidence that the totalitarians Hitler and Stalin both possessed. Trump is only a garden variety kleptocrat dictator wannabe. That said, kleptocrat dictators are plenty bad on their own as Arendt makes perfectly clear in her book.

  • I have faith in the wisdom of the American people to see through him but the Republicans must find a strong and intelligent candidate to also run in the 2020 elections.

L&Z argue that the republican party has abdicated defense of democracy. They point out that because what Trump wants is so closely aligned with what they want, they will not mount any serious opposition. I suspect that prediction will turn out to be true. As far as I can tell, Trump, most of the republican party and most pro-Trump populists appear to be enemies of democracy and the rule of law. American democracy is under a deadly serious, sustained attack. If Trump is reelected in 2020, that just might be enough to bring democracy and the rule of law to their knees.


Seems to me, L&Z are concerned the Right has found in Trump, their messiah figure...

While ignoring those in the personage of Obama, AOC, Harris et al.

And the MSM is on their side, as well.

Write Comment
IDW.community does not evaluate or guarantee the accuracy of any content read full disclaimer
  • IDW.community is the largest community for fans of the Intellectual Dark Web! We're non-commercial, fan-operated, and independent of any public figure.